What Happened to "Real" Yoga?

Research examines how its popularity has changed yoga.

Posted Sep 13, 2019

Yoga is everywhere! Exclaims one participant in Sabrina Smith and Matthew Atencio’s (2017) study on the yoga scene in the San Francisco Bay area. Indeed, in 2018 there were 36 million participants and 6000 studios across the United States (https://www.thegoodbody.com/yoga-statistics/). Yoga is also available through numerous self-help books, magazines, internet sites, commercial retreats, and health clubs and is advertised as suitable for various settings (e.g., yoga on a SUP, on the beach, in the forest, on mountains).

With this mass popularity, yoga has diversified to include several types (e.g., Iyengar, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Kundalini, Anusara, hot or Bikram, flow), fusions (e.g., Yogalates, aerial yoga, flying yoga), and target groups (e.g., kids, elderly, neonatal, prenatal, moms). Supported by a large potential consumer base, yoga specific merchandise has also multiplied. It is estimated that Americans spend 16 billion dollars in yoga classes, clothing, accessories, and equipment every year (https://www.thegoodbody.com/yoga-statistics/). While 10 million men practiced yoga in 2012, the majority of participants (75%) are women between 30-49 years old. In their systematic review, Park, Brown, and Siegel (2015) add that yoga participants are generally White and upper socio-economic status. As Smith and Atencio (2017) summarize, yoga practitioners tend to be well-educated, White, middle or upper class women. 

Irina Logra/Pixabay
Source: Irina Logra/Pixabay

Some researchers argue that there is a prevalent view that white middle-class feminine bodies are most suited to yoga (Smith & Atencio, 2017). Atkinson and Permuth-Levine (2009) also describe that most male and novice participants believed that yoga is a feminine activity because women possess more flexibility than men. Indeed, according to surveys, most participants want to improve their flexibility through yoga participation (https://www.thegoodbody.com/yoga-statistics/). Even if the exercise benefits may be at the top of the list, yoga is not only about conditioning the body.

The yoga researchers remind us that perfecting the postures through regular practice should be geared toward self-fashioning, self-improvement, and self-discipline that eventually leads to the transcendence of the ego (Godrej, 2017). ‘A healthier’ lifestyle associated with yoga is then based on the idea that the body serves as a vessel to the soul and thus, it is important to keep it fit and pure to facilitate the meditative practice of reaching unity with the universal spirit (Biswas, 2012). This goal is possible for everyone through regular practice (Smith & Atencio, 2017). 

While yoga researchers might place spirituality at the center of yoga, many participants do not necessarily assume it as the ultimate goal behind striving to perform progressively more difficult yoga postures or asanas. Some researchers report a lesser emphasis on spirituality and attribute this to the changing demographics of yoga participants. For example, Kern (2012) observes that yoga has changed from a countercultural practice to a commodity offered more often in urban centers to serve, as she describes, “yoga mums, urban hipsters, or laptop-using café customers” (p. 32). Several researchers use the term ‘gentrification’ to explain this process. Yoga studios operating in these contexts consider that the spiritual emphasis may not appeal to the urban, professional market. Instead, Kern argues, studios sell happiness, self-acceptance, fitness, improved body shape, and overall health. In this market place, yoga’s spirituality becomes secondary. Biswas (2012) adds that the texts explaining this aspect of yoga are not necessarily available to every teacher who, most commonly, has received training in how to perform the asanas and their modifications correctly. 

The physical yoga practice, nevertheless, has many health benefits and, as Godrej (2017) points out, there is nothing wrong with thinner, more flexible and mobile, healthy (women) citizens. At the same time, yoga researchers add, the consumerist logic may have stripped yoga of its unique, remedial power. 

Lucas Pezeta/Pexels
Source: Lucas Pezeta/Pexels

Godrej (2017) explains lengthily what happens when yoga begins to follow market logic and consumer culture. Yoga turns into an expression of lifestyle choice and individual identity. Although there is an element of self-transformation in yoga, it should be geared towards seeking “otherness” in the material world. The ultimate goal, accordingly, is an identification of one’s soul and consciousness with “a sacred sense of the universal” (Biswal, 2012, p. 97). Commercialized yoga, instead, turns into “a strategic practice designed to enhance one’s own esteem and future value”(Godrej, 2017, p. 783). Similar to many other fitness practices, self-discipline and self-mastery serve to construct effective citizens who with their healthy diets and exercise practices create perfect bodies. Such yogis can also cope with the increasing demands of their workplaces by keeping their bodies healthy, useful, flexible, and productive. They are, Godrej continues, the ideal entrepreneurial, disciplined, and self-regulating consumers “driven by the logic of choice, the responsibility of their own health, progressive self-cultivation empowered by their own self-investment as effective and successful citizens” (p. 784). While in many ways empowering, Godrej warns that when reduced to self-care, consumption, and entrepreneurship, yoga turns from a communal practice open to everyone into unemancipatory and anti-egalitarian workouts producing citizens concerned only about themselves. In this context, others who do not choose to practice yoga can be seen as failures, because they have allegedly made a personal choice to be unhealthy. 

Indeed, Smith and Atencio (2017) find that the yogis in their study advocated yoga as a practice open to everyone. The participants believed that if one tried hard enough, it was possible for everyone to find a suitable yoga practice despite their life circumstances. They further observed that some people, for example African-Americans, can feel excluded, but also stated that it is possible for everyone to find their own space in yoga culture. It was “the individual’s prerogative” to overcome any marginalization or exclusion (p. 1178). 

How, then, should yoga be practiced? As a response to the gentrification and commercialization of yoga, some yoga activists promote a return to authentic yoga faithful to such texts as Bhagavad-Gīta or Yōga-Sūtras. 

In the US context, contemporary yoga is often traced to Patanjali’s Yōga-Sūtras. Based on these texts, Biswas (2012) summarizes, yoga stills the changing states of the mind and by so doing, teaches how an individual human spirit can “coalesce with a ‘Supreme Universal Spirit’” to attain “blissful liberation from worldly suffering and attachments both mental and physical” (p. 97). To reach this state, a yoga practitioner has to transcend an egoistic vision of the self by achieving equanimity of thought and behavior. 

While many regard Yōga-Sūtras as the definitive source for yogic philosophy (Biswas, 2012), Godrej (2017) reveals that the current reading is based on Swami Vivekanada’s 1893 selective presentation in the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago where he constructed “a monolithic and ostensibly ‘authentic’ version of yoga’s classical’ history” that has turned into most predominant narrative of contemporary yoga (p. 775). In his reading, Vivekanada actually disdained the bodily practice of yoga that, however, was emphasized by his contemporaries Sivananda Saraswati and Trumalai Krisnamacharya both of whom constructed their own postural systems. Krishnamacharya’s tradition is particularly important for the current development of yoga as B.K.S. Iyengar, the father of Iyengar yoga, and K. Pattabhi Jois, the father of Ashtanga yoga, were both students of Krishnamacharya. These yoga lines, while selectively linked to a reading of ancient tradition, also draw from rationalist modern science and biomedicine (Godrej, 2017).

Instead of one ‘authentic yoga,’ recent scholarship emphasizes, yoga is a construction based on a variety of texts, ideas, and practices, not necessarily all originating from premodern India. Godrej, for example, shows that modern postural yoga is “a creature of fabrication” (p. 772) modified from hat ha yoga or the physical practice of asanas. Drawing from diverse sources originating from various times, appealing to yoga’s authenticity does not remedy the impacts of commercialized yoga. If not authentic, then what should contemporary yoga practice look like?

Godrej (2017) suggests that instead of the commercial focus on the individual or the claims for authentic yoga spirituality, we should reconsider how yoga’s self-discipline can help its practitioner to “cast critical light on the mental processes having to do with worldly outcomes and thus deconstruct their ultimately illusory and unsatisfying nature” (p. 788). When the detachment from worldly desire is emphasized, yoga practice can oppose the norms of consumer culture. This requires the development of an inward gaze that can problematize “the construction of one’s own needs, desires, and self-image” and the need to possess material goods (p. 788). Godrej finds the power of yoga to be in its ability to unmask “the larger socio-political and cultural forces” behind the compulsion for self-investment that characterizes consumerism. This way, Godrej argues, the yogic body may resist the pervasive demands of consumer society to become a non-instrumental, a “good for nothing” practice. 

Godrej (2017) stresses that the non-instrumental yoga still needs to be grounded on Patanjali inspired concepts as well as Bhagavad-Gītā if it is to resist the commercialist driven self-focus. Indeed, many teachers are already introducing these concepts in their classes to critique the achievement-orientation of contemporary yoga. The yoga teachers do need to know enough about these texts to introduce the concepts in a way that, indeed, emphasizes yoga’s countercultural, non-instrumental character. Godrej emphasizes that “marrying postural practice to particular philosophical precepts” (p. 792) requires solid philosophical knowledge without which it is not possible to create a modified practice and do justice to the diversity of yoga’s long history. She concludes 

“Perhaps the foremost political task, then, is for scholars and practitioners to treat yoga in ways that emphasize its counterhegemonic potential, steering clear of authenticity debates and instead turning our energies to the productive task of taking up its intellectual resources for socio-political resistance.” (p. 794)

Following Godrej (2017), one is to avoid both the dangers of commercialized yoga and the unfounded claims for authentic yoga. Such a practice requires solid knowledge of several philosophies guiding yoga practice in addition to the rational, modern knowledge of safe, physical practice of yoga. Godrej, a political philosopher specializing in the role of the body in ancient and contemporary Indian traditions, definitely has the tools to reconstruct this type of yoga. But what about us attending yoga classes in fitness centers or commercial yoga studios? How do we learn to question and resist the egotistical self-care? Can we find yoga instruction that advocates values beyond consumerism? Can we have a good workout and resist becoming self-absorbed? 

While it is possible to have postural yoga without an individualistic focus on self-fashioning, this appears to require moving beyond merely practicing asanas to engaging with the non-instrumental philosophy of yoga. If this is the optimal yoga practice, we will also need yoga instructors who embody this philosophy and can teach it to the increasing number of yoga practitioners. How this will be possible within the contemporary fitness and yoga market place remains to be seen.  

References

Biswas, P. (2012). Social sutra: Yoga, identity, and health in New York’s changing neighborhoods. Health, Culture and Society, 3(1), 94-111.

Godrej, F. (2017). The neoliberal yogi and the politics of yoga. Political Theory, 45(6), 772–800.

Kern, L. (2012). Connecting embodiment, emotion and gentrification: An exploration through the practice of yoga in Toronto. Emotion, Space and Society, 5, 27-35.

Park, C. L., Braun, T., & Siegel, T. (2015). Who practices yoga? A systematic review of demographic, health-related, and psychosocial factors associated with yoga practice. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 38, 460–471.

Smith, S., & Atencio, M. (2017) “Yoga is yoga. Yoga is everywhere. You either practice or you don’t”: A qualitative examination of yoga social dynamics. Sport in Society, 20(9), 1167-1184.